Sports journalist Dave Zirin says bribery and corruption are endemic to FIFA, and discusses what could take its place in the world of soccer
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
The world’s most popular sport, soccer, is in crisis, creating havoc wherever the World Cup is being played. It is not any different from what is happening this week in Brazil, what has happened in South Africa and elsewhere, and perhaps Qatar to come. Anyone playing this game normally needs just a ball in a field. But allegations of corruption and protest throughout Brazil has occupied this sport for the last month.
Joining us today to talk about this is Dave Zirin. Dave is the sports editor for The Nation magazine and the host of Edge of Sports Radio. He authored the book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Struggle for Democracy.
Thank you for joining us, Dave.
DAVE ZIRIN, SPORTS RADIO HOST, JOURNALIST, AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
PERIES: Dave, what’s–you recently authored a editorial in the NYT on FIFA. What is going on with FIFA?
ZIRIN: Well, FIFA is a profoundly antidemocratic, very cloistered, extremely powerful–as John Oliver put it, the comedian, he called them “cartoonishly evil” organization that oversees international soccer. And they are an organization–thanks to the bravery of the masses of people in Brazil, are actually being exposed, not unlike the ways in which organizations like the IMF, World Bank, and WTO were opposed 15 years ago in the global justice movement. These sort of anonymous officials are being dragged into the spotlight where people are, I think, seeing what they’re all about and being nauseated by what they find.
PERIES: Dave, you wrote, “FIFA is supposed to police match-fixing, yet a New York Times investigation revealed that only six people on its staff of 350 are responsible for that enforcement. It is supposed to monitor corruption, but it’s not clear it does. There have long been allegations” that bribery has occupied and perhaps influenced the 2022 World Cup decision for Qatar.
What is really the problem with the governing of the FIFA structure? And who is governing it?
ZIRIN: Well, I mean, it’s currently led by a gentleman named Sepp Blatter. I mean, but the problem is that just the bribery, the corruption, which is such an open secret it usually–when these stories come out, it promotes more than anything just cynicism and eye rolling. The problem is that the latest allegations have to do with not only bribery that may have brought the World Cup to Qatar, but also match-fixing during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And the only thing that sports really have is–more than anything else, is their credibility that it’s a product where, you know, the team that performs better on the field or in the ring or on the court is the team that actually wins. And FIFA looks to be completely incapable of monitoring that kind of system, where they oversee corruption, because they themselves are very corrupt. It’s like asking a corrupt police officer to fight crime. I mean, it’s completely at odds with who they are, systemically. It’s not just even about bad leaders; it’s about how they’ve chosen to run international soccer.
And so what I called for in The New York Times was that they really do need to be abolished for the good of the game.
PERIES: And then who would govern the sport?
ZIRIN: Well, I think you would need different bodies for different purposes. I mean, FIFA is in charge of both monitoring corruption and marketing and selling the sport. So these are–so they’re very cozy with corporate sponsors and very cozy with the plutocracy of the world, many of whom are huge soccer fans and very competitive people who sometimes apply those rooting interests in ways that actually influence the outcome of games, not to mention governments that have tried in the past to influence the outcome of games. I mean, people can Google 1978 World Cup and look at the way in which the Argentinian dictatorship may have actually fixed that World Cup while FIFA looked the other way for the purposes of justifying their own legitimacy as the dirty wars were carried on in Argentina and throughout Latin America.
So this is who FIFA is and this is who they’ve been for decades. And it’s only getting worse in a post-9/11 world where these security and surveillance issues are at the heart of a lot of the funding that goes into putting on these mega-events.
And so I think you need separate organizational bodies. You need an organizational body that actually tries to monitor corruption and match-fixing and the like, one that is unassailable from just a moral and principled perspective. And then you could also have an organization that’s responsible for marketing and sponsorships and selling the sport. But the idea of having one organization that’s responsible for both seems to me like a disaster waiting to happen.
PERIES: Right. And then, looking ahead, Dave, in terms of Qatar World Cup coming up in 2022, that decision to give Qatar the World Cup is also in question by the very organization. Some members have spoken out, questioning that decision and how it was influenced, and calling for another vote. Can you tell us more about that?
ZIRIN: No, absolutely. I mean, Qatar is a country that during the summer, temperatures reach 125 degrees. Already hundreds of migrant workers have died in the building of the stadiums in Qatar. And there are just myriad reasons why hosting a World Cup in Qatar is a bad idea. And yet FIFA rubberstamped it.
And now people in FIFA are tripping over themselves talking about how this was a bad idea, really trying to distance themselves from the fact that there was a bribery in the situation that took place. I have to quote the comedian John Oliver, who said that I hope there was bribery to get the World Cup to Qatar, because otherwise it makes absolutely no sense to have the World Cup in Qatar–at least that brings some logic to the decision. And sure enough, stunningly, Sepp Blatter, who’s the profoundly unprincipled head of FIFA, is accusing people who are criticizing Qatar hosting the World Cup of racism, which is a remarkable statement from Sepp Blatter, especially given his own history of Islamophobia, which includes trying to prohibit women from wearing hijab when they play soccer and making that against the rules. So he’s hardly an honest broker when it comes to issues of anti-Islamic or anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bigotry. If anything, he’s been a promoter of that during his time as head of FIFA.
PERIES: At least in the case of Brazil, you can understand: it’s a national sport that is loved by the people of Brazil. When it comes to Qatar, I mean, Qataris are not big soccer players and, you know, the population doesn’t even lend itself to that kind of, you know, cultural celebration of a sport in that way. Are there any evidence of the bribery allegations?
ZIRIN: I mean, yes. People should just Google “New York Times Qatar” and also “Sunday London Times Qatar”. I mean, the investigations have been exhaustive and they’re very compelling that payoffs took place. And Qatar is also, you know, a dictatorship. It’s also a country that’s really trying to establish a degree of leadership in the Middle East. And hosting the World Cup, I mean, it’s tremendous prestige for a country to be able to do that. But once again, given the temperatures and given the fact that it just makes no sense to have the World Cup there, I mean, bribery certainly stands astride everything else as an explanation for why this is happening.
PERIES: Qatar is also the home and the funder of Al Jazeera. Has Al Jazeera been covering this issue?
ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, I’m a contributor to Al Jazeera, which means that I come on to provide sports commentary for their evening program once a week Consider This. And we’ve done segments about it, and I’ve been asked about it, and I don’t hold back one iota, I mean, and no one has ever asked to meet to at Al Jazeera. So, I mean, I give them credit. They’ve been very honest brokers through this process. And I do have to say as well that Al Jazeera America, their reporting that they’re doing from Brazil right now, from the favelas, I mean, really put some of the major news news networks to shame.
PERIES: That’s great. Thank you so much for joining us, Dave.
ZIRIN: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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